U.S. Must Remove UNCLOS Handcuffs
Image Credit: Kevin Burkett

U.S. Must Remove UNCLOS Handcuffs


China is certainly building a robust navy. Last year, its first aircraft carrier was sighted conducting sea trials, and Beijing has reportedly again upped its military spending by double digits, in this case 11.2 percent for 2012.

As the United States “pivots” to the Asia-Pacific region, U.S. defense planners are increasingly focused on China’s maritime build-up. Recent Pentagon budgeting decisions – such as expanding space-based and cyber capabilities, and making improvements to the Navy’s attack submarines – are designed to counter China’s growing military capabilities. However, an even more effective tool remains unused, and for no good reason: ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The treaty went into effect in 1994 and has more than 160 countries signed on, including Canada, Australia and all of Europe. The costs of not ratifying it are growing by the day. Until the U.S. Congress ratifies the treaty, we lack the international legitimacy to prevent Beijing from bullying Asia and bending economic and security laws in its favor.

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The strange thing is that the treaty actually has widespread, bi-partisan support – a rarity in Washington these days. Both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush pushed for its approval. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved it, including through a unanimous decision to recommend the treaty in March 2004. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, chiefs of naval operations, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are for it. When business interests line up with national security objectives, it signals how important and pressing the issue is.

And ratifying the treaty saves the United States boatloads of cash. Approving it would allow us to reduce our military expenditures yet maintain naval strength at a time when our nation’s debt keeps climbing. One example is over piracy. The total economic costs of Somali piracy in 2011 were approximately $7 billion by some estimates. Signing the treaty would allow the U.S. to better coordinate anti-piracy and anti-terrorism efforts alongside the international community. Instead of policing the world’s waters by ourselves, we could share the burden.

Signing the treaty, then, reduces costs and danger for our already overextended navy.

What’s more, approving the treaty is similar to the best kind of business decision: it reduces expenses and puts money in our pocket. It provides for Exclusive Economic Zones, or exclusive privileges to manage the natural resources near our coast. No country stands to benefit more from these zones than the United States. As Citizens for Global Solutions points out: “The American zone is larger than that of any country in the world. The size of [America’s] zone is…bigger than the lower 48 states combined.” With increased access to the ocean’s resources – including mineral-rich waters near our shores – we can boost the economy, increase domestic energy production and bring back more jobs.

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